Since last summer, the city of Madison has seen many fresh new faces emerge in local politics and activism. From alder candidates to community leaders, residents have expressed being called to action after the May protests downtown — but not all of them have been so quick to step in the spotlight.
Alec Esther, a volunteer with Reshaping Madison Together, has lived in Madison for nearly two decades. Esther remembers being aware of his own queerness at an early age; he grew up “nurtured” by feminists and reading radical Black feminism. By the time he was 16, Esther had become engaged in burgeoning movements for Black liberation. “Purely in support, purely as an advocate for this. Not by any means as the centerpiece,” Esther said.
Esther points to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police in 2014, as what sparked his interest in creating “communal power.”
“One thing that I learned from that time was to tweet everything,” he reflected. “To create accessible community meetings [and] allow people who might not consider themselves in the community to be a part of that blossoming base of power, and allow them to step into those meetings, those gatherings, those spaces.”
And so, Esther began to tweet.
Esther responded to the activity in Madison following the murder of George Floyd by applying the same model he saw in Ferguson. He set to work, transcribing police scanner activity live on Twitter. At the time, he had 300 followers, and most of them weren't in Madison. But in just 48 hours, Esther had received 700 new followers.
“The day after the Minneapolis uprising, I knew that there was going to be Madison action. I also knew that there was a pandemic, and I'm not the healthiest in the world and I also have limited access to transportation. The point being, I wanted to do something virtual. I knew that there would be very few people live-tweeting the scanner. So I decided that this is something that I need to do,” he explained.
Esther has continued to operate on Twitter under the handle “Highest Winds,” and he has since transcribed over 100 hours of Common Council meetings and community dialogues in Madison. Esther has carefully, and anonymously, documented public testimony, discussions on Madison Police Department standard operating procedure and the council’s vote on the city budget. He’s even collaborated with WORT News to transcribe and live-tweet alder debates.
For Esther, the step from police scanners to public meetings was natural. “I just took it to the logical conclusion, which was, okay, I transcribed a police scanner. Now let's transcribe everything for accountability’s sake.”
Esther also voiced that while his transcription of the police scanners was vital, it further contributed to a sense of victimization.
“How do I reframe Madison as a source of specifically Black agency, of, specifically, revolutionary change? How do I reframe Madison, not just as a place of extreme white supremacist terror, but more importantly, of emergent, and lasting and continuous and frankly, beautiful forces for change? That was a very important shift for me, that ultimately recaptured the spirit of civic engagement,” he said.
Despite his long-standing commitment to activism, Esther remains reluctant to center himself. His reasoning for agreeing to be interviewed was that his own activism was designed to build up the community, and by sharing his perspective and experiences, he would be establishing trust within that same community. Esther expressed the need to prioritize Madison’s Black voices instead over his own, and to put names to these voices too.
Esther referenced community leaders such as Brandi Grayson, M. Adams, Larissa Joanna and Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores — women of color whose words he has worked to transcribe.
“I think a lot of times, my fellow white people will regurgitate and reiterate these hopes of ‘amplifying Black voices’ and elevating Black presence on the timeline or whatever it might be. And then they don't do that!” he said. “Transcription is so important because it's vital to have archives that allow people to explicitly pinpoint the names and presences of community leaders, especially community leaders of color in our neighborhoods, so we can understand who to look up to.”
For those looking to get involved in activism, Esther has specific advice: Firstly, do internal work and ask yourself why you want to get involved. Then, look for ways that you can change the material circumstances around you.
“Can you do something that feeds people? Can you do something that houses people, that clothes people? Can you create community connections that provide for your neighbors?” he asked.
By transcribing meetings and dialogues, Esther isn’t only recording the words of community members and leaders. He is creating a written record of Common Council meetings. Not to mention, his efforts provide a service to residents that the city does not, making those dialogues even more accessible. Esther referenced the efforts of other disability advocates and activists to implement basic accommodations for constituents over Zoom, including Jeremy Ryan’s requests for allowing people to have cameras on them when they're speaking so that people can read lips.
While this may not be considered “feel good” engagement, Esther sees it as a responsibility.
“In this way, it's kind of important to ask why you want to get involved. If it's to create this kind of liberal sense of ‘doing things that feel good’ because you think that attending roundtables and task forces is something that's good for the community, without ever actually implementing lasting material changes, don't get involved,” he said. “Don't get involved if you're not looking to fundamentally transform and reshape how your community lives, works, plays and fundamentally survives.”
According to Esther, his decision to sit at his computer, for hours on end, to watch council and committee meetings was not a conscious one. The real choice he made was to help transform the scope of civic engagement and justice in Madison while bringing it to the local level and providing an archive and record. His goal was to shine a light on those that were already there.
“The main reason we’re seeing this surge in advocacy is because people are actually paying attention now, but these leaders have been out here for decades,” Esther concluded. “And so, my 100 hours or so of meetings is fundamentally a drop in the bucket compared to the tireless labor of Black people in Madison.”